Tips for Hiking Zion’s Iconic Subway

Hiking Photography Trip Reports
on
May 2, 2016

We won the lottery.

One of the best feelings in the world is receiving that long anticipated email from Zion National Park Wilderness Reservations:

Congratulations, you’ve been selected in the advance lottery for the Left Fork North Creek (THE SUBWAY).

If you’re not familiar with Zion National Park (ZNP), you should be. National Geographic ranked ZNP #6 on their list of the most visited National Parks and for good reason.

Elevations in ZNP range from 3,800 to 8,800 feet. Do the math: that’s 5,000 feet of elevation change, which translates to some of the steepest and most dramatic canyons anywhere!

Zion_Subway_CanyonWalls2

Within ZNP, The Subway is by far the most popular backcountry hike due to its diverse and unique beauty. Because of its popularity, the number of daily visitors is restricted by permits. If you do secure a permit, consider yourself lucky. ZNP issues only a handful per day.

Our permit included my wife, son, and three of his friends. Perfect party size of 6.

Tip #1: Your permit application may include up to 12 people, but smaller parties have a better chance of a lottery win (that’s our theory anyway).

We started down the Wildcat Canyon trailhead around 10:00 am. We timed our departure so we’d be the last group down, so we had to push to finish by sunset.

Tip #2: There’s a delicate window of time to start your hike. The estimated time to complete the 9-10 mile hike is about 7-8 hours, but factor in another two hours for photography and taking it all in once you arrive at the actual Subway. Start early so don’t get stuck in the dark!

We arrived at the Russell Gulch overlook where the rock and route stairway takes you down into the gulch. If you miss the stairway, you’re faced with cliffs hundreds of feet straight down to the bottom floor.

Zion_Subway_DeepCanyons

We found the staircase and descended into the confluence of Russell Gulch and the Left Fork of North Creek. The canyon narrows and the walls of Zion seem to rise, almost as if Mother Nature is welcoming you into The Subway.

Zion_Subway_CanyonWalls

Tip #3: Hike with someone who has already hiked The Subway. Navigating The Subway can be difficult, and losing your way is common, especially in the the first few miles. ZNP strongly recommends you hike with an experienced guide or have someone in your party who has hiked the route before.

As we descended into the gulch, the temperature dropped suddenly. When we started our hike at Wildcat, it was 100°F, but at the canyon floor, the temperature dropped to 70-80°F. With such high towering cliff walls, sunlight is rare, but beauty is not. 

Zion_Tree_Sunlight

Tip #4:  Bring a simple waterproof topography map. This may seem old school, especially in this digital age, but you’re in deep slot canyon country and the high canyon walls interfere with GPS signals.

As we traversed through the sunless slot canyon, the only light was indirect light, reflecting high above the canyon walls. Negotiating obstacles and managing a few small rappels, we faced our first water obstacle: dark pools of water which followed the contour of the narrow canyon walls. Most of these pools are deep and narrow, so you have to swim/tread water as you negotiate your way through the slots.

Tip #5: Pack gear in dry bags. It’s nearly impossible to keep your gear out of the water.

Zion_Subway_RockandHardPlace

It would be an understatement to say this water was cold. I’ve swam in glacier fed lakes, and this water was just as cold. Just 300 feet above it was 100°F, but we were uncomfortably cold down below. This just adds to the uniqueness of this canyon.

Tip #6:  Wear a wet vest, or pack a jacket and keep it dry.  After a few icy swims, you’ll be cold and constantly seeking out rare light pockets to warm up.

Zion_Subway_PocketofLight

We knew we were approaching The Subway by the unique hollow-like contour of the lower canyon walls carved by millions of years of erosion. In one area of the approach, appropriately named The Log Chamber, a large tree lies wedged into the canyon wall.

Zion_Kenyon_LogChamber

Tip #7: Bring a climbing rope and harness. Injuries are common, and the last thing you want is a sprained or broken ankle in this wilderness area. Ambitious hikers who feel they don’t need a rope for the smaller rappels end up hurting themselves.

Our last rappel lowered us into the mystical Subway. Pothole pools filled with emerald green water. Indirect light bounced off vibrant sand stone walls.

Zion_Subway

I had to remind myself to “capture moments with your mind first, then photograph” because The Subway is truly a photographer’s paradise.

Tip #8: When you leave The Subway, look for a large, flat slab of white rock. It looks out of place, but it’s covered in dinosaur tracks.

The Subway is everything it claims to be and more. It’s a mystical adventure everyone should experience.

Over the past 10 years, Zion visitation has increased 30%, and The Subway remains one of the most popular slot canyon hikes in Zion. When hiking, please be mindful of your footprint, following Leave No Trace principles. Pack out what you pack in.

 

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